PLEDGE WEEK: “Muleskinner Blues” by the Fendermen

A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs
A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs
PLEDGE WEEK: "Muleskinner Blues" by the Fendermen

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Click below for the transcript.

Today we’re going to look at one of the great one-hit wonders of all time — a duo who made one fascinating single, made the top five with it, and then never managed to repeat their success. Today we’re looking at “Mule Skinner Blues” by the Fendermen:
[Excerpt: The Fendermen, “Mule Skinner Blues”, guitar solo]
The Fendermen were originally from Wisconsin though both of them later moved to Minnesota, and were both born on the same date, November the 26th 1937. Jim Sundquist and Phil Humphrey started out in their own bands, but after meeting up at university decided to perform together without any other musicians, both playing Fender guitars through the same amp, with Humphrey singing and Sundquist playing lead guitar.
They both liked Jimmie Rodgers, and in particular they enjoyed his song “Muleskinner Blues”, also known as “Blue Yodel #8”:
[Excerpt: Jimmie Rodgers, “Muleskinner Blues (Blue Yodel #8)”]
They recorded their own version of the song, and took it to a tiny label called Cuca Records, who put out a pressing of three hundred copies:
[Excerpt: The Fendermen, “Muleskinner Blues”, Cuca version]
That started to get some airplay, and people started wanting to buy the record, but Cuca Records weren’t able to get any more copies pressed up for several weeks. So another label stepped in. Soma Records at first offered to lease the recording from Cuca, but when the two labels were unable to come to an agreement, Soma got the Fendermen in to rerecord their song, this time at a professional studio — the same one that would later be used by the Trashmen to record “Surfin’ Bird”:
[Excerpt: The Fendermen, “Muleskinner Blues”]
Soma released that with a different B-side from the one Cuca had used, an instrumental called “Torture”, so that Soma could collect the publishing money:
[Excerpt: The Fendermen, “Torture”]
Astonishingly, “Muleskinner Blues”, a cover of an old country song, with falsetto leaps and only guitars for a backing, made number five on the pop charts, aided by an appearance on American Bandstand. They got a full backing band together, and started touring nationally.
But then Cuca sued Soma. Eventually the two labels reached an out-of-court settlement, but the vast majority of the money from the hit ended up going to Cuca, rather than Soma.
The next single featured the full band, rather than just the two guitarists, and was a cover version of Huey “Piano” Smith’s “Don’t You Just Know It”:
[Excerpt: The Fendermen, “Don’t You Just Know It”]
That didn’t make the Hot One Hundred, and after one more single, and an album featuring all their recordings, the band broke up. Sundquist went back to Cuca Records, where as “Jimmy Sun and the Radiants” he put out a version of “Cocaine Blues”, an old Western Swing song that had recently been revived by Johnny Cash as “Transfusion Blues”:
[Excerpt: Johnny Cash, “Transfusion Blues”]
Sundquist’s version restored the original lyrics, but was otherwise modelled on Cash’s version:
[Excerpt: Jimmy Sun and the Radiants, “Cocaine Blues”]
The Radiants also backed a singer called Dick Hiorns, on another record in the style of “Muleskinner Blues”, a surfed-up version of the old Hank Snow country song “I’m Movin’ On”:
[Excerpt: Dick Hiorns, “I’m Movin’ On”]
Despite that being a surprisingly good record, it was out of step with musical trends by 1961, and was unsuccessful.
The Radiants then renamed themselves The Muleskinners, and released a novelty record in the “Monster Mash” style, called “The Wolfman”:
[Excerpt: The Muleskinners, “The Wolfman”]
Phil Humphrey, meanwhile, remained on Soma Records, as Phil Humphrey and the Fendermen, and released another version of “Don’t You Just Know It”, coupled with his own novelty record, “Popeye”:
[Excerpt: Phil Humphrey and the Fendermen, “Popeye”]
Both men eventually ended up running their own versions of the Fendermen, touring into the 2000s. Sundquist’s version put out a handful of recordings, and he also guested with the Minnesotan rockabilly revival band The Vibro Champs on their remake of a Fendermen B-side, “Beach Party”, in 2000:
[Excerpt: The Vibro Champs, “Beach Party”]
Sundquist also had a side career making gospel music, in a duo with his wife Sharrie, but I’ve been unable to find any recordings of them, though apparently they wrote over a hundred Christian songs together.
The Fendermen did reunite, briefly, in 2005 for two shows backed by the Vibro Champs, and had something of a cult following after the Cramps recorded their own version of “Muleskinner Blues”, based on the Fendermen’s version:
[Excerpt: The Cramps, “Muleskinner Blues”]
They never had another hit, and left behind a tiny number of recordings, but the Fendermen are now regarded as one of the most important precursors to the surf and garage rock sounds of the sixties, and their few recordings are regularly repackaged. Sundquist died in 2013, and Humphrey in 2016.

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